Food: Award-winning goat cheesemaker has a day job in finance

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 9, 2017.

A Blue Ribbon for Idyll Farms’ range of cheeses.

Not your standard shepherd: Spitznagel with his goats.

Idyll Gris, one of the farm’s prize-winning cheeses.

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IN Northport, Michigan, among rolling hills and barns that evoke the mountains of Europe, Spitznagel and his wife Amy are producing French-styled goat cheese such as Idyll Gris, which features a silvery ash coating between fluffy light layers of fragrant goat cheese. It is one of Idyll Farms’ most popular styles, and it has gained serious cred in the world of fromage.

At the 2017 American Cheese Society Conference in July — the dairy world’s version of the Oscars — Idyll Farms walked away with seven awards, the most for any goat cheese producer in North America. Among their awards: three first-place prizes, three seconds, and one third — out of some 2,000 entries. All this for a cheesemaker that has been in business for only five years. 

Idyll Farms began when the Spitznagels spotted a run-down 200-acre (81ha) farm across the lake from their summer home in Northport, and purchased it for under US$1 million. 

The six-figure investment was interesting for Spitznagel, though not for the dollar amount. Spitznagel has a full-time job running Universa Investments LP out of its Miami headquarters, with a focus on tail-hedging. (In the financial markets, a tail refers to the end of a bell curve.) Universa is known for its ability to protect assets against the all-too-frequent plummets that come at the end of a tail. 

When he and his wife bought the farm in 2010, Spitznagel’s disappointment in the market’s levers was palpable. “The world was about financialisation, machine trading, and fake growth. That speaks to what motivated me about the farm,” he said. 

After buying the property, the couple considered winemaking. But wine in Michigan, even though a burgeoning category, felt like a leap. “Everyone was doing wine,” said Amy. And they wanted to create a world-class product. Their nightstand showcased where their minds were going: His side had Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Her side had Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese. They kept coming back to goats. “The more we read, the more we were intrigued and motivated to start with cheese production,” she said.

Their decision made, the couple visited several respected California goat cheesemakers and then travelled to the mecca of cheese: France. There they spent time with Rodolphe Le Meunier, a famed cheesemaker and affineur (a person who ages cheese). Le Meunier shared his extensive knowledge of ageing the “fragile and delicate” style they preferred. “The big challenge for a goat cheesemaker is to mix the good goat with the good terroir,” said Le Meunier.

Today, Idyll Farms’ herd of 200 Alpine goats, certified as humanely raised, nibble on a fresh plot of land every day of the week. 

“Idyll Farms’ cheesemakers did a great job making high-quality cheese this year,” said Stephanie Clark, associate director of the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center at Iowa State University and the ACS competition chair. 

Despite the quality of the goat milk, most Idyll Farms’ cheeses are pasteurised — a heating process that kills bacteria, as mandated by the USDA — for use in their soft, fresh offerings. Though unpasteurised cheeses tend to get all the love from cheese fanatics, the farm’s top performers, Idyll Gris and Idyll Spreadable Pastures, took home first-place awards; both are pasteurised. 

Chefs are taking note. Mario Batali and executive chef Frank Langello offer it on the dinner menu at Babbo in Manhattan; you can also find it at Eataly locations in New York and at assorted Detroit restaurants. 

Spitznagel was in Miami when Idyll took home the wins, but his wife was there to accept the awards, along with Hiles. “We were just in shock and humbled that we were able to do this in five years of production and out-win other producers that have been doing it for 30-plus years,” she said.

Turning his attention from cheese to finance, Spitznagel foresees more doom for the economy. His complaint with today’s market is that “we intervene in naturally healthy processes”.

By “we”, he means the federal government. “There’s another meltdown coming. We have never been this extreme before — that manipulation of interest rates — and I think the end game is going to be extreme.” Spitznagel’s advice: “I would tell anyone that they should own real, tangible, sustainable assets.”

Still, Spitznagel doesn’t foresee leaving the financial world for that of goat cheese any time soon. He believes hedge funds remain a safe haven for investors who are not looking to go back to the land. — Bloomberg